Beret, Mustache, Baguette: A Student’s French Language Immersion at Middlebury

By Rebecca Railson
Elm Staff Writer

When people ask me about my experience at L’école française at Middlebury College in Vermont, I usually summarize it with the following line: “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it was also the best thing I’ve ever done.”

I decided to major in French halfway through my first French class here at Washington College. I quickly found myself getting bored. I wanted to be fluent. If I told myself two years ago that I would be majoring in a foreign language that I used to mock in high school, I wouldn’t have believed it. I learned quickly that college provides the opportunity to find hidden passions and to never say never.

When my mother showed me the website for Middlebury’s language program, I knew I had to go for it. The French program is a seven-week accelerated summer course that immerses students in both the French language and culture. The factor that separates Middlebury from other intensive language courses is the pledge. From the moment classes begin until the end of the program, students are not allowed to speak, read, listen, or write in any other language besides French.

I knew that the intensity of the program would be just what I needed. I received my acceptance letter a few weeks after I sent in my application.

After an eight-hour drive, I arrived in Vermont. I moved into my suite that I shared with three other girls the next day. The program was very mysterious. The website provided little information about how classes would be run and who would be teaching them.

In case you’re crazy enough to apply to L’école française, here’s what they don’t tell you:

1. Everything is French. From the professors to the bikes to the cigarette smoke wafting outside of buildings, every French stereotype is there. The only things missing were a beret, a moustache, and a baguette.

2. Classes began at 8 a.m. Not 8:01 or 7:59, 8. The courses were, in order, vocabulary, grammar, literature, and phonetics.

3. Beware of the Spanish school. There are 13 languages all being taught at once on campus, and as a general rule we had to avoid the other schools as much as possible. There seemed to be a special type of hatred for the Spanish school that I couldn’t explain. Lunch was after class and we ate in shifts with our school. After about 45 minutes, the language assistants (sort of like TAs and counselors mixed together) warned us to hurry up and leave as the Spanish school was coming in. During my last week at Middlebury I infiltrated enemy territory and ate lunch with the Spanish language learners. Needless to say, committing blasphemy wasn’t all that exciting.

4. There is a minimum of six hours of testing per week. I’ll just let that sit.

5. The experience is awful. I had to leave my family, friends, and my passion for writing and reading in my native language behind. I was living with strangers in a state I had never seen. I had to socialize daily in a language that I barely knew. Surrounded by native speakers and advanced students who were much better than me, I began to doubt my own abilities. I couldn’t escape that feeling because I was immersed in it. There were days that I felt I was getting worse at French. I began to see all of my mistakes, and my confidence plummeted.  I began to call it French Hell because I couldn’t escape my shortcomings. Each day felt like judgment since the professors preferred to use degradation instead of praising while teaching. It was a miserable war waging in my own head.

6. The experience is incredible. I had the opportunity to meet passionate and brilliant students of all ages from around the world. Some of these people became close friends and inspirations to work harder. The camaraderie and love I felt was unmatched. We weren’t students; we were a family. Despite spending my birthday taking exams, my new friends surprised me with a card signed by the entire class. I had to stop caring how the professors felt. I remembered I was there for myself and not to impress anyone. I was proud of myself and that’s what mattered. There were dances and celebrations that taught me about French culture and I got to see some of the greatest French films of all time. By the end of the program, I didn’t want to speak English anymore.

Despite my doubts, once I returned home I placed into Advanced French 301 at WC after only a year of study. While I was unpacking my dorm to begin the fall semester, I found a button that each of us received during our arrival at Middlebury with the initials FR for French. I decided to display that pin proudly on my backpack to remind myself of my accomplishments. When I’m feeling particularly sad or lonely I look at the pin, smile, and remember that I can do more than I think.

1 Comment

  1. Hi, Rebecca!

    I am interested in attending the French school as well, and I was wondering:

    – How much do you think your fluency increased by the end of the program?

    – What are some things you wish you had done before the program to prepare? Not just emotionally, but study-wise? Should I beef up my vocabulary, practice speaking in French, read in the target language…

    – Do you find it easy to keep your French from fading after you left the program? What do you do to keep it from getting rusty?

    – Do you have any general advice for people going to the program?

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